Urban Peasants


In China it appears you can take the peasant out of rural areas, but you cannot stop them being a peasant.

Early in the last decade China ini­­­tiated a project to move 250 million people from rural areas to the cities; from shanties and small houses to the high rise apartments that characterise so much of their urban environment. In fact, since 2012 the rural population has declined by 776 million to approximately 500 million while the urban population has increased to 65% of the population.

In 1970, over 80% of the population was rural. China has long been involved, since 1978, in such a project, the purpose of which is to free land for construction. The move has been good for the prosperity and life expectancy of those who move but it has not necessarily made them any happier.

Chinese peasantry never seems to get a break. Following the communist revolution, farming was collectivised. Initially at least, it seemed to work but led to an agricultural crisis in the late 1950s which was responsible for millions of deaths. Collectivism, like many aspects of Communism, led to a disempowerment of the peasantry. The farms belonged to everyone; therefore, they belonged to nobody. In the late 1970s a process of decollectivisation took place, the farms were returned to the peasants and they turned Chinese agriculture around through a system of family farming.

Chinese agriculture is a semi-success story. They produce more grain crops than any other country in the world. However, they are far from self-sufficient in food and are, in fact, net importers of food. But, out in the rural areas of China it is common to see a great deal of self-sufficiency. Small towns and hamlets will have chickens running freely. Children will lead pet ducks and geese around on leads, until the time comes for said ducks and geese to grace the family table. In fact, urban children also keep pet fowl until they are dispatched for dinner. And it seems no plot of land is too small or too stony for a small crop of vegetables by the house, across the road or on the verge of the road.

Almost everywhere you look you will see evidence of cultivation. A motorway journey between cities reveals a kaleidoscope of small, cultivated patches on hillsides, often many miles from where anyone apparently dwells. A common and easily identifiable crop is maize and neat rows of root vegetables: potatoes, yams and tarot can also be seen.

Moving peasants to the cities presumably reduces the amount of arable land. But it also removes people from an environment where they were self-sufficient to one where they are much less so. It is hard to grow crops when you live in a high-rise apartment.

Or so you might think. On a recent visit to the city of Luzhou, in Sichuan Province, I saw something new: the urban peasant.

Luzhou is a small city—by Chinese standards—of 5 million people which lies on the banks of two rivers: the mighty Yangtze River; and the smaller Tuo River. The confluence of these is in the heart of the city. I am familiar with the banks of the Yangtze River having stayed in the same hotel there for the past 13 years. This time I was in another part of town on the bank of the Tuo River. The Tuo has a steep bank on one side and a network of paths leading down. On a morning run along the pavement at the top of the high bank I spotted something several hundred feet below that I had to explore.

There appeared to be a patchwork of small plots at the edge of the river, some extending down to the waterline. As I approached it became evident that these were cultivated plots with a remarkable array of vegetables growing. The river floods, and it struck me that occasionally these plots may well be submerged. Some of the plots were being attended, mainly by women, young and old. Fascinated, I walked for hundreds of yards, and it transpired, for a considerable stretch of the river, there was not a single square yard of the river edge that did not have something growing on it.

The patchwork of irregularly shaped plots, the lack of obvious delineation or any signage suggested to me these plots were probably not regulated. I asked a Chinese colleague who, indeed, confirmed the informal nature of the plots. The people cultivating them did not pay to use the land or seek any kind of permission.

“They are peasants,” my host informed me, “they have moved to the cities but taken their customs with them.”

In a country of rules, regulations and ‘the Party’ it seems that China, or at least the municipal powers of Luzhou City, have turned the proverbial blind eye to the urban peasants in their midst. It is lovely to see a trend being bucked. China is full of surprises.

Roger Watson is a Registered Nurse and Editor-in-Chief of Nurse Education in Practice.

*Photos courtesy of Roger’s phone.